Fuzz day again
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Despite the lingering winter, the haircut trigger came earlier than last year:
http://come-to-think.livejournal.com/36440.html

05my88
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Also, there are dandelions, blossoms, and all that jazz.

Hey, I have a cat too
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It used to be, maybe still is, a custom among French farmers to decorate the rooftrees of their houses with glazed plaster animals.  After my father won a literary prize in 1930, he treated himself to a year in France, and came home with this cat.  For most of my life it climbed up the corner next to the fireplace in the living room of our house in Vermont.  After he died in 1976, my brother & I cleared out the house, and I laid claim to the cat.  It as since been climbing the bookcase in my rooms in Virginia & Massachusetts.  It is much better behaved than the cats that occupy most Web postings.

The last time a picture came out sideways, I remember it was a long agony to get it right side up.  There are instructions, but I cannot follow them, because the button they tell me to click on is not in sight.  Maybe your browser will allow you to rotate the picture ccw.
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Memory
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This morning I was rereading a manuscript novel by an old friend of mine, of blessed memory, who was a year ahead of me at Caltech in the '50s.  It was one of two that he had sent me for comment about 10 years after we graduated, when he had become a physicist & I an assistent editor at the Physical Review.  Toward the end of the novel, the main character, who is also a physicist, goes to a summer school in Sicily, and the hot topics he learned about are listed:

current algebras, broken symmetries, resonance phenomenology, particle supermultiplets, and Regge poles

Not that I know what most of those things are, but it took me right back:  Regge poles!  What ever became of Regge poles?  Phys. Rev. was full of them in my day, but they haven't been in the news recently.  Suddenly, a thought came into my head, fifty years after:  They are poles in the scattering amplitude as a function of angular momentum continued into the complex plane.  Wikipedia has an article on Regge theory, and damned if it isn't so!  Physicists still learn about the subject, but it has become embedded in far vaster developments.

I was critical of both MSs, and in fact they never got published.  However, after he became a professor, he did publish a book, about the campus politics of his university, and it caused some scandal.  (I must look it up.)  Then he had a heart attack on the tennis court & died.  He is one of a number of people I wish I could donate my superfluous years to.

Many times a day I am reminded of things from a long time ago, as far back as childhood (70 years).  But this one was exceptional in that it was not of something I was ashamed of.

Against identity: 3
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3  Some typical abuses

3.1  William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890)


In his introduction, he says:


With most objects of desire, physical nature restricts our choice to but one of many represented goods, and even so it is here. I am often confronted by the necessity of standing by one of my empirical selves and relinquishing the rest. Not that I would not, if I could, be both handsome and fat and well dressed, and a great athlete, and make a million a year, be a wit, a bon-vivant, and a lady-killer, as well as a philosopher; a philanthropist, statesman, warrior, and African explorer, as well as a 'tone-poet' and saint. But the thing is simply impossible. The millionaire's work would run counter to the saint's; the bon-vivant and the philanthropist would trip each other up; the philosopher and the lady-killer could not well keep house in the same tenement of clay. Such different characters may conceivably at the outset of life be alike possible to a man. But to make any one of them actual, the rest must more or less be suppressed. So the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list carefully, and pick out the one on which to stake his salvation. All other selves thereupon become unreal, but the fortunes of this self are real. Its failures are real failures, its triumphs real triumphs, carrying shame and gladness with them. This is as strong an example as there is of that selective industry of the mind on which I insisted....  Our thought, incessantly deciding, among many things of a kind, which ones for it shall be realities, here chooses one of many possible selves or characters, and forthwith reckons it no shame to fail in any of those not adopted expressly as its own.

We are given a list of more or less incompatible physical appearances, occupations, accomplishments, and virtues, and they are called "empirical selves", "truest, strongest, deepest" selves, and things one might stake one's salvation on.  Why not just try to decide which are most important in each situation?

It is an important fact of life that desires, including virtuous desires, often conflict (see http://come-to-think.livejournal.com/37765.html, Section 3.4), so that goodness in humans is bound to be idiosyncratic:  There has to be room for personal style in morals as in everything else.  Such choice is complicated & often difficult, and it is reasonable to call the results one's character, and to praise adherence to them as integrity.  But it is silly to call them one's self.  It is the same self whichever way the conflict comes out.

3.2  Philip Roth, "The Conversion of the Jews" (1958)

In this short story a boy in Sunday school gets in an argument with his rabbi, loses his temper, runs out of the room in tears, and escapes to the roof of the building:


A question shot through his brain. “Can this be me?” For a thirteen year old who had just labeled his religious leader a bastard, twice, it was not an improper question.

No, indeed.  Nor was it a proper_ question.  It was not, properly, a question at all; it was a rhetorical exclamation of surprise, based on stretching a common metaphor to the breaking point.  Here are the stages in the process:

  1. If I am conversing with you --- say, on the telephone --- on the supposition that you are an aquaintance named John Doe, and you say something that makes me suspect I am mistaken, then I might say "I'm sorry.  Are you actually John Doe?" and you might tell me I have gotten a wrong number.

  2. If I am conversing with you, knowing well that you are John Doe, and you do or say something that seems astonishingly out of character, then I might express my surprise by saying "Are you really John Doe?" --- feigning a suspicion of mistaken identity.

  3. I might instead put that rhetorical flourish in better humor by making it "Can this be John Doe?", as if I were talking to myself.

  4. Or, still less offensive, "Can this be you?" --- jovial nonsense, in that I cannot really be in doubt about whether the person I am talking to is the person I am talking to.

  5. Finally, we are to imagine a thirteen-year-old boy turning that bit of play-acting on himself.  I have trouble doing so, but Mr Roth does not:

Louder and louder the question came to him --- ”Is it me? It is me?” --- until he discovered himself no longer kneeling, but racing crazily towards the edge of the roof, his eyes crying, his throat screaming, and his arms flying every which way as though not his own.

“Is it me? Is it me Me ME ME ME! It has to be me --- but is it!”

It is the question a thief must ask himself the night he jimmies open his first window, and it is said to be the question with which bridegrooms quiz themselves before the altar.

In the few wild seconds it took Ozzie’s body to propel him to the edge of the roof, his self-examination began to grow fuzzy. Gazing down at the street, he became confused as to the problem beneath the question: was it, is-it-me-who-called-Binder-a-Bastard? or, is-it-me-prancing-around-on-the-roof? However, the scene below settled all, for there is an instant in any action when whether it is you or somebody else is academic. The thief crams the money in his pockets and scoots out the window. The bridegroom signs the hotel register for two. And the boy on the roof finds a streetful of people gaping at him, necks stretched backwards, faces up, as though he were the ceiling of the Hayden Planetarium. Suddenly you know it’s you.

In less pompous language:  Suddenly you know that you were, and perhaps still are, capable of something that you recently weren't sure you could do.  That discovery was somewhat frightening, but you have to make the most of it.

3.3  Douglas R. Hofstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot (1997)

In Chapter 15, Professor Hofstadter struggles to press intellect into the service of empathy:


Probably the most common way of trying to understand someone who hates chocolate but loves liver (say) is to say to yourself, "Oh, I see --- liver is for Jill what chocolate is for me, and vice versa!  I'll just swap the concepts in my mind.  No sweat!"  This strategy whereby two related concepts are swapped, thus presumably enabling an alien viewpoint to be internalized and temporarily adopted, is what I call the symmetry argument.
. . .
Symmetry arguments may work reasonably well for non-core aspects of people's personalities, such as taste in food or sensitivities to disturbances, but try to elevate this strategy to something that matters deeply, such as key beliefs about morality, truth, or honesty --- or even to taste in music.  That is, suppose Elveena is addicted to loud rock-and-roll but detests all classical music.  Will it work if I try to "understand" her by saying to myself, "Oh, I see --- sure! --- Elveena is _exactly like me_, only with the roles of rock-and-roll and classical music swapped!  To understand her feelings, I'll just swap the concepts in my mind.  No sweat!"

No, not at all.  The way I see things, the reason this utterly fails is that your taste in music is "where you live" --- it embodies in an unimaginably profound manner just w_.  The counterfactual act of tampering with someone's musical taste is tantamount to carrying out a partial "soul transplant" on that person, reaching in and so profoundly disturbing their core identity that they are no longer recognizable.  If I, for example, try to imagine my mother avidly listening to a Top-40 radio station and shunning the music she grew up with in the 1930's and 1940's, the moment I do so, this "she" I've conjured up is no longer my mother.  So radical a musical taste-swap simply won't take.  One can transplant hearts these days, but not heart.

Core.  Who you are.  Identity.  Heart.  Recourse to those obfuscatory expressions is a sign that Hofstadter's musical taste is extremely important to him --- perhaps, indeed, too important --- and that that possibility is making him uncomfortable.  Indeed, a few pages later he agonizes over it extensively.  He was invited to a memorial service, and he had to deal with his emotions on discovering that some rock songs, which the dead man had admired, were on the program:

To put it very bluntly, how can crude trash --- even if the dear departed loved said trash --- do honor to a person's memory?  ...  Suppose sweet little four-year-old Minniohlah, dying of leukemia, had always been cracked up by the sound of burps; would you think it appropriate to play a videotape showing little Minniolah splitting her sides at her own repeated long, loud belching?  You can dream up even more extreme cases, I'm sure.

(No, thank you.)  He takes three pages to wrestle those feelings to the ground.  I myself have somewhat similar feelings about rock and roll, but I would ignore them from the beginning, because my respect for ceremony would overwhelm them.  Rock and roll is a mechanized tantrum, wakes are raucous & vulgar & sometimes violent, and Christian prayers appeal to delusion; but they have given comfort over the centuries, so let them be.

3.4  Peter D. Kramer, Listening to Prozac (1993)

In the introduction, Dr Kramer recalls:


...I had occasion to treat an architect who was suffering from a prolonged bout of melancholy....  A central conflict in his marriage was his interest in pornographic videos.  He insisted his wsife watch hard-core sex films with him despite her distaste, which he attributed to inhibition and narrow-mindedness.

As he neared forty, Sam fell into a brooding depression set off by a reversal in his business and the death of his parents....

...[H]e agreed to try Prozac.

The change...was remarkable:  Sam not only recovered from his depression, he declared himself "better than well."...

...Here I want to focus on a solitary detail that troubled Sam: though he enjoyed sex as much as ever, he no longer had any interest in pornography.  In order to save face in the marriage, he continued to rent the videos that once titillated him, but he found it a chore to watch them.

Altogether, Sam became less bristling....  He experienced this change as a loss.  The style he had nurtured and defended for years now seemed not a part of him but an illness.  What he had touted as independence of spirit was a biological tic.  In particular, Sam was convinced that his interest in pornography had been mere physiological obsessionality....  Although he was grateful for the relief Prozac gave him from his mental anguish, this one aspect of his recovery was disconcerting, because the medication redefined what was essential and what was contingent about his own personality --- and the drug agreed with his wife when she was being critical.

Sam was under the influence of medication in more ways than one: he had allowed Prozac not only to cure the episode of depression but also to tell him how he was constituted.

"Redefined what was essential and what was contingent" --- that's ancient Greek for "weighed in on him what a stupid shmuck he was".  He had attached far too much importance to pornography, and when Prozac relieved him of that burden, he didn't say, "Honey, I have wonderful news for both of us"; no, he imposed a far viler burden on himself (& his wife!): he had to "save face in the marriage".  Nobody with an attitude like that deserves to get married or even laid.

Retreating to more dignified English, one might say that Sam was distressed by a change in his self-image that made it conflict with his ego ideal.  With those notions kept distinct, useful discussion might be possible.  With them mashed together in such pseudoconcepts as essence & identity, it is not possible.

3.5  Matched T-shirts

I saw them at a bisexual shindig in 1992:


YOU ARE WHAT GETS YOU WET
YOU ARE WHAT GETS YOU HARD

This is a particularly blatant example of the pun on two senses of "to be" that was popularized by Erik Erikson in the 1950s under the name of "identity" and has since become a major pest.  "I am John Doe" is a statement of identity (in the logical or in the police sense); "I am (a) bisexual" is a statement of attribution or of classification, depending on one's taste in analysis.  The poetry of the pun says:  Your ability to be sexually aroused by certain persons or things is the most important (or maybe even the only important) fact about you; the class of persons who resemble you in that ability is, in some mystical fashion, identical to you.  This rhetoric clearly appeals to something deep in human nature, which is present even in me.  In my adolescence "the search for a people" was a theme I dwelt on continually.  However, I have always failed in that search --- even in deviant subcultures, I have always been on the fringe --- and so I am free to be skeptical of the notion.

The new idiom was probably facilitated by an older one: "to identify with".  To identify with X is to make X an object of one's sympathy: to respond to it with emotion appropriate to oneself.  If I say that in watching a play I identified with the villain, I mean that I admired the villain's judgments, felt proud of his accomplishments & shame at his defects, and so on.  In the case of a play, such identification is temporary & recreational, but often these days it is long-lasting & serious --- often, excessively so.

Most commonly one identifies with a set of beings with whom one shares an important attribute, the description of that attribute (or of the set) being attached to the word "identity": thus "bi identity", "gay identity", "black identity", that wonderful baloney sandwich "woman-identified woman", etc.  Erikson's book Childhood and Society, which may have started this nonsense, is at any rate full of it.  In recent propaganda, the idiom is specialized to groups that are judged to be oppressed.  Erikson's examples are mostly tho not entirely of that kind.  It is true that he allows himself to talk of "American identity", but by now that would be in bad taste, and "man-identified man" would be even worse.  By that restriction, "identity" comes to incorporate (incoherently) such political notions as allegiance, loyalty, and solidarity.  From the outside, here is what that maneuver looks like.

With good luck, different facts about yourself will be important for different purposes, but no one fact will be overwhelmingly important per se.  But if your luck is bad, some people will undertake to make one fact about you overwhelmingly important.  In the first stage of this process, they are your enemies: by insolent force they are trying to make you assign excessive importance to whatever fact about you they most deplore.  If they have enough force at their disposal, they may succeed:  If you were black in the old South, or Jewish in W.W. 2 Europe, or gay in most places & times, it would be hard to escape paying attention to that fact, almost from minute to minute.  So also in nations at war.  But then organized resistance is called for, and so, in a second stage, your fellow victims have a colorable argument for weighing the bad news in on you, with the use of such concepts as loyalty, allegiance, and treason.  Whether that argument is convincing depends on details; mere recitation of that fact that you "are" an American, etc., does not prove anything, and calling such recitations statements of "identity" is mere question-begging.  Marlene Dietrich was a patriotic German, and the Fermis were patriotic Italians, but their decisions to get the hell out are much to be commended, tho some people called them names.

It is a particular vice of traditional religions to insist that belief in them shall be, always and forever, the most important fact about the believer.  The only reasonable response to such claims is blasphemy & apostasy.  Christians & Jews have mostly been demoralized in that respect, but Hindus & Moslems are still at it.

Against identity: 2
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2  Two sensible senses

Some of the legitimate uses of "identity" are worth considering in detail, because they are often, by a sort of pun, allowed to lend spurious plausibility to the bad ones.  It is therefore important to point out that they are not actually up to that job.

2.1  The logical sense

Identity in logic is the relation that, by definition, each entity bears to itself and to nothing else.  It is needed in ordinary language & in most constructed languages because they contain synonyms (different names of the same entity) and descriptions (noun phrases that characterize an entity).  In ordinary English that relation is usually represented by some form of the verb "to be" (which, however, has other uses).  To say that George Washington was the first president of the United States is to say that the proper noun "George Washington" and the singular description "the first president of the United States" designate the same person.

A quirk of usage is worth noting.  In most mathematical talk, the sign "=" and the corresponding word "equals" are used in the sense of identity.  To say that 2+2=4 is to say that 2+2 is 4: that "2+2" is a description of the number called "4".  Equality does not mean that in ordinary English --- or in plane geometry as traditionally taught.  There, to say that A and B are equal is to say that they are equal in some property (length, say); it is that property, not the entities, that is identical with respect to the two of them.  "All men are created equal" does not mean that there is only one man; it means that all men have the same political rights.  So also in geometry from Euclid down to my childhood:  If, approaching the Bridge of Asses, I wrote that AB=AC, I would not mean that AB and AC were the same line segment; I would mean that they were equal in length (had the same length).  A modern mathematician would disapprove, and would insist on my writing something like m(AB)=m(AC); I suspect that by now that scruple has found its way even into elementary textbooks.

It should be clear that identity in this sense is merely a linguistic convenience and has no bearing on psychology, sociology, or ethics.  In particular it is not a relation between a thing and its parts.  I am (near enough) a connected warm region of space-time bounded (near enough) by a birth, a skin, and a death.  I am, by definition, identical to myself.  My first year, my left foot, my nose, my self-esteem, and my fiftieth year are each identical to themselves; none of them is identical to any other of them, or to me.

2.2  The police sense

This sense is more complicated & interesting.  I call it the police sense because it is what the police mean when they say they have established the victim's identity, or suspect a case of mistaken identity, or have provided the witness with a new identity, or are investigating a complaint of identity theft.  It means a set of observable attributes that are held together by the knowledge that they belong to the same person.  My name, address, telephone number, Social Security number, bank accounts, birth date, citizenship, and eye color, at a given time, are components of my identity in that sense.  Given two or three of those, you may (perhaps with the help of a warrant) find out all the rest, and perhaps even find me.

There are probably a few hermits who have no identity in that sense.  Most people have exactly one.  A few have two or more, with the help of fraud or police protection, but that is hard to manage.

The components of a police identity are usually not of great importance one by one.  What makes them (socially) important is their connection with each other.  That allows me to ask "Who are you?" and mean "Tell me enough about yourself that I can find you again".

Against identity: 1
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1  Introduction

What I mean to criticize here is a cluster of ways of talking about human beings that have existed for a long time, but have typically made use of the word "identity" since that usage was popularized in the 1950s by a psychologist who called himself Erik Erikson and who I think was a crackpot.  That word has legitimate uses, but as the pernicious pseudoconcept I am concerned with here, it is often expanded as "who you are".  Other expressions that have been used instead of or in association with it are "essence", "self", "core", and "heart".  Of these, "essence" is the oldest.  Bertrand Russell (A History of Western Philosophy, Ch. XXII) says:


...The notion of essence is an intimate part of every philosophy subsequent to Aristotle, until we come to modern times.  It is, in my opinion, a hopelessly muddle-headed notion, but its historical importance requires us to say something about it.

The "essence" of a thing appears to have meant "those of its properties which it cannot change without losing its identity."  Socrates may be sometimes happy, sometimes sad; sometimes well, sometimes ill.  Since he can change these properties without ceasing to be Socrates, they are no part of his essence.  But it is supposed to be of the essence of Socrates that he is a man, though a Pythagorean, who believes in transmigration, will not admit this.  In fact, the question of "essence" is one as to the use of words.  We apply the same name, on different occasions, to somewhat different occurrences, which regard as manifestations of a single "thing" or "person."  In fact, however, this is only a verbal convenience.  The "essence" of Socrates thus consists of those properties in the absence of which we should not use the name "Socrates."...

Octet
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Through the years, we've grown used
     to the truth-telling boor,
          so rejoice in the yeast
               and its white lies on  beer ---
in the bubble-borne boost
     to the bedlam where you're
          a contented old beast
               in a Happy New Year.

(1991)
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My unconscious rewrites history
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It is not just movies (http://come-to-think.livejournal.com/5669.html) that engage my confabulation mechanism.  Casual researches have revealed that I was harboring utterly false versions of recent history:

Musical chairs in San Francisco: Harvey Milk was the mayor.  Dan White, the chief of police, had resigned to run against Milk.  When Milk won, White asked for his job back, and Milk refused him, so White killed Milk.

Only English counts: Salman Rushdie originally wrote & published The Satanic Verses in Arabic.  It was reviewed in the Arabic-language press (including that of Iran) -- mostly unfavorably, but with no threats against the author.  Only when it appeared in English was there widespred indignation culminating in Khomeini's fatwa.  Furious threats were made to prevent the book's appearing in paperback.  I actually believed this incredible story, and remembered it as having appeared in a serious magazine article.  I can find no trace of it on the Web.  (Perhaps it was true of some other book?)

Against nature: 4. Is it all nonsense?
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Evidently, if the appeal to nature is foolishness, it is natural foolishness, and as such deserves some attempt at sympathetic understanding.  A notable attempt at a balanced view is provided by Bertrand Russell.  In "What I Believe" he says

There is a certain attitude about the application of science to human life with which I have some sympathy, though I do not, in the last analysis, agree with it.  It is the attitude of those who dread what is "unnatural."...  I think there is a mixture of truth and falsehood in the admiration of "nature" which it is important to disentangle.  To begin with, what is "natural"?  Roughly speaking, anything to which the speaker was accustomed in childhood....  Clothes and cooking are too ancient to be denounced by most of the apostles of nature, though they object to new fashions in either....  [T]hose who preach "nature" are inconsistent, and one is tempted to regard them as mere conservatives.

Nevertheless, there is something to be said in their favor....  [I]n the absence of knowledge, unexpected harm may be done by a new departure from nature; but when the harm has come to be understood it can usually be remedied by some new artificiality.  As regards our physical environment and our physical means of gratifying our desires, I do not think the doctrine of "nature" justifies anything beyond a certain experimental caution in the adoption of new expedients.  Clothes, for instance, are contrary to nature and need to be supplemented by another unnatural practice --- namely, washing --- if they are not to bring disease.  But the two practices together make a man healthier than the savage who eschews both.

There is more to be said for "nature" in the realm of human desires.  To force upon a man, woman, or child a life which thwarts their strongest impulses is both cruel and dangerous; in this sense, a life according to "nature" is to be commended with certain provisos.  Nothing could be more artificial than an underground electric railway, but no violence is done to a child's nature when it is taken to travel in one; on the contrary, almost all children find the experience delightful.  Artificialities which gratify the desires of ordinary human beings are good, other things being equal.  But there is nothing to be said for ways of life which are artificial in the sense of being imposed by authority or economic necessity....

To the charming example of children in subway cars one might, in our day, add the potent one of children using computers.

In "Scylla and Charybdis, or Communism and Fascism", tho, he loses his balance:

...Where living beings are concerned, and most of all in the case of human beings, spontaneous growth tends to produce certain results, and others can be produced only by means of a certain stress and strain.  Embryologists may produce beasts with two heads, or with a nose where a toe should be; but such monstrosities do not find life very pleasant....  It is possible to cut shrubs into the shape of peacocks, and by a similar violence a similar distortion can be inflicted upon human beings.  But the shrub remains passive, while the man...remains active, if not in one sphere then in another.  The shrub cannot pass on the lesson in the use of shears which the gardener has been teaching, but the distorted human being can always find humbler human beings upon whom he can wield smaller shears.  The inevitable effects of artificial moulding upon human beings are to produce either cruelty or listlessness, perhaps both in alternation....

...The ultimate psychological argument for democracy and for patience is that an element of free growth, of go as you please and untrained natural living, is essential if men are not to become misshapen monsters....

I fancy there are better arguments for democracy & patience than that.  One might retort that nature can produce monstrosities without the help of embryologists; that they need not find life any less pleasant than their normal parents do, and may even be the beginnings of new species; and that we can hardly avoid artificial molding of human beings, which are (as Skinner points out) the most domesticated species of all.  In this respect even the earlier passage is somewhat incoherent.  People's "strongest impulses" are not necessarily the natural ones.

Mention of children, however, does bring up one fact about human nature that is of great moral importance --- tho more for the problems it creates than for the guidance it provides.  That is the fact that as infants we need to be taken care of, and so as a species we have to be provided with instincts for caring and for being cared for.  We share that program, of course, with other mammals & with birds, but we have carried it to an extreme.  A vast range of habits, including especially those that enable us to live together, is left to upbringing.  As Isaac Asimov ("No Connection") imagines an intelligent bear describing us, we are "gregarious without being social":  We have an inborn need to live with each other, but no inborn ways to do it.  That means, in particular, that the notion of liberty has to be reconstructed in each individual over a period of years.  (From the way some libertarians talk, you might think they had hatched & walked away on all eight legs.)

IMO nature deserves far more respect in esthetics than in ethics.  It is odd that people tend to think of esthetics in connection with art; it seems to me that most of the ugliness in the world is due to art (e.g., make-up, motel signs, Mylar balloons, newspaper advertising supplements, rock and roll, small-business storefronts, and station breaks on vulgar radio stations), and most of the beauty is due to nature.  Except for music, I see little use in trying to create beauty; it is more important to find it & try to avoid destroying it.

Against nature: 3. Nature and normality
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In medicine and ethics there is a strong tendency to identify nature, in some sense, with norms.  One can get away with that in some cases, but a lot depends on details.  Here I consider four specimen organs.

3.1  Hearts

Hearts pump blood, and that is almost all they are good for. That was discovered only recently, and only in one culture, but is true of all human beings thruout the ages.  Consequently, the criteria for a good heart are pretty straightforward.  If the valves leak, or the muscles contract in the wrong order, physicians are entitled to give those conditions long, nasty names and do what they can to remedy them.

It is true that hearts have another use: they reveal to each of us, and to others who have gotten close enough, something of our emotional state.  People used to believe that that meant the heart produced the emotions, and metaphors based on that belief (and more vaguely on the position of the heart within the body) are still common:  We say "broken-hearted" and "put your heart into it" and


  I put my hand upon my heart
  And swore that we would never part.
  I wonder what I should have said
  If I had put it on my head.

However, few people these days take such talk literally; everybody knows that emotion as well as intellect is mostly in the brain, and that the two are intimately mixed.  Awareness of heartbeats is not of great importance in civilized life.  If a patient is given an artificial heart that pumps blood quietly, sensible people do not regard the cure as incomplete.

3.2  Feet

Human feet are mostly used for walking & running, and can mostly be judged by their effectiveness for those purposes.  In that respect they are almost like hearts, tho their design is not nearly so well perfected, probably because they came much later in our natural history.  Feet, however, can also be used for stamping, which is useful for killing small animals, putting out small fires, and expressing certain emotions.  In the wild, our soles were thick, and we did not need shoes for those purposes.  (I once knew a lady from Kenya who in childhood had run 20 miles to & from school every day; she brought such soles with her to college, where they did her no harm.)

Finally, feet can be used for kicking.  For that, however, nature has equipped us poorly (by the standard of, say, horses), and I don't suppose there is much of it in cultures that haven't invented shoes.  Besides expressing emotion, kicking can be used for breaking things and in various stages of fighting.  But in civilization its main use is in propelling small objects for amusement.  Kicking is thus contrary to nature in two senses: it is a deviation from the most usual & conspicuous use of our feet, and it requires artificial avoidance of natural consequences.  Does that make football a perversion?  I leave it to His Holiness to bring that news to Notre Dame.

I recently saw a photograph of the feet of a man whose people spend a lot of their lives climbing trees barefoot.  They were not shaped like yours or mine, but they were probably good at what he needed them for.  If he came to civilization & were examined by a naive doctor, she probably would look in vain in the literature for the name of his deformity, and would recommend either some elaborate surgery or amputation & prosthesis.  She would have a point:  As he was, he would have trouble buying shoes, and in his new tribe he would not often wish to climb trees barefoot.

3.3  Sexual organs

The sexual organs are often called reproductive organs, and that is reasonable in that if you or I want to reproduce, the use of those organs is usually the easiest way.  It is not reasonable, tho, to say that sex is for reproduction, even in the sense that hearts are for pumping blood or feet are (mostly) for walking.  From the top down --- considering first reproduction & then sexual reproduction --- the sexual aspect is an impediment rather than a means.  Suppose there were a species that, instead of sexual reproduction, had sexual vision.  Half the individuals would have eye sockets with retinas but no lenses; the other half would have no eyes but would have a lens at the end of each little finger.  In order for a pair of them to see, a male would have to climb onto a female's back and lock his hands over her face.  Wouldn't you wonder how such an awkward arrangement could be selected for, by natural selection or even by intelligent design?  And yet, when it comes to reproduction, which is far more fundamental biologically than vision, we take it for granted.

In fact, biologists are not agreed on why sex is so common.  It is urged that the mixing of genes is essential to adaptation & speciation; but bacteria manage that without complementary organs and the requirement of one organism from column M & one from column F.  Even among animals, there are parthenogenetic lizards and rotifers.  (The lizards even go thru the motions of mating.  Do they count as lesbians?  The alliteration is tempting.)  True, the lizards are evolutionary dead ends; but it appears that the rotifers have managed to evolve & speciate without the help of males.  The trouble with the rest of us, according to one suggestion, is that in us an obscure but essential biochemical pathway is blocked unless we mate, and the rotifers have found another way around the blockage.

Another idea is that multicellular organisms fall into this bifurcation because of some long-term instability in the very process of their reproduction.  Perhaps traits as well as organisms can be parasitic, and sex is a parasitic trait, propagating without actually improving the fitness of the individuals or species it infests.  (That might be true, in particular, if it were helpful for speciation.)  It does seem that most of the individuals so afflicted are miserable or dead, and most of the species are extinct.

However that may be, it is clear that in judging the use of the sexual organs, an appeal to nature is even less plausible that it is for feet.  If there is objection to their being used to express this or that emotion, or for this or that kind of play, then that objection had better depend on details.

3.4  Brains

Brains are badly understood, and they have a variety of uses, for good or ill.  A lot of doctors say they know what constitutes proper fuctioning of brains ("mental health"), but they are bluffing, like the priests before them.  Indeed, it may turn out best to say that a brain is not one organ, but a collection of several thousand, forced to live together by their confinement in the same skull and by the needs of cooperation & competition for access to the various sensory & motor nerves, in something like a political process.  (Such ideas may be found in The Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky.)  If so, then it is likely that each individual is missing some of them thru genetic accident or early deprivation of exercise, so that we are all several dozen kinds of cripple, but manage thru various workarounds.  Also, it may well be that an organ's participation in one possible coalition makes it unavailable to others, so that again there have to be workarounds.  In such a situation, the notion of normality will not be helpful.

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